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Whither or wither NGOs?

15 Feb 2020 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

Recently, a friend of mine observed that many if not most NGOs, in their quest for values like transparency and reconciliation, embark on lavishly-funded projects which target a broad and mass audience but end up appealing to a discerning minority. Exhibitions at galleries in and around Colombo, discussions with foreign experts in closeted air-conditioned rooms and halls in Colombo hotels and art, essay and photography competitions that exclude a majority who have neither the energy nor luxury to engage in them: these, she pointed out, tend to leave out the people who matter to those who want to achieve reconciliation and accountability. By doing so, she added, NGOs were not only alienating people but discrediting themselves by shutting themselves off from people and thereby the country.  

The problem with NGOs – and I mean most of them barring the occasional grassroots agency which serves its community – is their inability to go beyond their cloistered quarters. Many of them seem to believe that fora, discussions and exhibitions in air-conditioned rooms somehow compensate for their lack of presence in the world outside Colombo or other major cities. If this had the effect of merely discrediting them in the eyes of the people who should matter to these agencies, there wouldn’t be an issue. But it has also had the effect of turning the people who matter away from the very values that the agencies advocate. One can’t blame them, because when you intellectualise reconciliation and projects which supposedly promote reconciliation, you distance yourself from a majority whose unfamiliarity with the language employed in those projects put them off.  

If you want to market these values, you have to market them to the people. While I’ve always believed that modern liberalism, the ideological stage from which these values are promoted today, is largely a construct of 18th and 19th century European, bourgeois, white and patriarchal civilisation, this does not and should not discount the universality and timelessness of values such as human rights, transparency and accountability. That these have been hijacked today and put in the service of a neoliberal agenda is another question altogether; that is a legacy of the Cold War, the end of history and the clash of civilisations, and the orientalist project still ongoing nearly three decades after Edward Said first wrote about it.  

Taken by themselves, we should not fall under the illusion that because these are being touted in the long-term interests of western ideological hegemony, they should be discarded. To do so would be to mistake the messenger for the message, indeed to assume that such values are, by default, western and alien to our civilisation. That is not so. Human rights, transparency, accountability and reproductive rights are not, nor have they ever been, west-only. Historical narratives and accounts tell us that long before cities emerged in Europe, long before Luther pinned those theses on the Wittenberg Church, scholars and rulers from this side of the world were making important moral distinctions, going beyond the dual logic system that the west would later pioneer. Erich Fromm would contrast these two systems of thought in his ‘To Have or To Be?’ -- one of the most important treatises of the 20th century that unfortunately has been sidelined by westernised intellectuals and radicals in Sri Lanka.  

The vexing question, then, is whether we must accept these values for what they intrinsically are or whether, given how they have been modified to suit western ideological interests and preferred political outcomes, we should try to relate them to a worldview that fundamentally differs from a Euro-centric perspective. Indeed, Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi has more or less suggested a shift in how we look at rights, framing them in terms of culture as well as modernity.  

The struggle to “universalise” these values and tenets must be taken from another angle also. For far too long, the human rights agenda, as it’s called, has been criticised, not unjustifiably, for being not only Euro-centric and white but also middle-class and elitist. In other words, they are seen as the preserve of English-speaking upper or upper-middle class society, a point that has more often than not been borne out by the reality; a glance at some of the big names in NGO society will make it clear that agencies tend to operate through cocktail circuits rather than tangible, lived encounters with people. Naturally this should not be the case, though it is: from the choice of officials for agencies to the language they employ in their press releases, they project distance from rather than proximity to the people.  

I realise the dilemma that these NGOs are caught in. Agencies rely on donors and donors can only give once certain criteria are met. Forgetting for the moment the vexing, debatable issue of whether donors set certain agendas that are detrimental to national interests – a moot point which I think deserves further analysis and assessment – the truth is that agencies are, not a little ironically, as bureaucratised as government departments, if in a less discernible way. As such policies tend to be ironed out by top officials, then interpreted and reinterpreted by the rank and file of the organisation, policy is filtered through many layers, making consistency and uniformity impossible. Ohanyan (2009) argues that owing to this donors “capture” NGOs and deny them both ideological and organisational autonomy, an issue no doubt exacerbated by the erosion of the State in the developing world and the entrenchment of the NGO sector against the backdrop of weak, authoritarian regimes.  

The fluctuating fortunes of NGOs deserve closer scrutiny. It’s certainly a paradoxical world out there, one which a seasoned academic, devoid of a bias for or against such agencies, must undertake to study. On the other hand, the universality of values that these agencies espouse must not and indeed cannot be denied. To fit them in the larger cultural mould we come out of, to relate them to people whose conception of individuality is different from how the west views it, is to embark on an endeavour far removed from the cocktail circuits and cloistered conference halls of many NGOs we have here at present. Unless we do so, all we will get out of reconciliation will be lavishly laminated coffee table books that ultimately mean nothing to people who should matter in the more relevant scheme of things. Reform within NGOs, by NGOs and not the government, is hence an imperative need of the hour.